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Samba Enredo

Updated: Feb 19

To better understand what samba is, and how we relate to it, let’s explore different types of samba one by one. Here, let’s look at samba enredo.

This is a long post, and one that is central to what we do in Olá Samba. With that in mind I would suggest returning to the content of this post bit by bit, using the video resources to really bring it to life.

What is samba enredo?

This is the amped up, caricature of samba made famous by the samba schools in Rio Carnival parades and perhaps what many of us would think of first when we hear the word 'samba'. In our Olá Samba set, our piece ‘samba’ is based on this style. It's also played by other groups around the country and indeed the world, but let's take a deeper dive here into the style as it is in Rio.

'Enredo’ (en-HEH-do) literally translates as ‘plot’ or ‘story’. In this context though, a better translation is ‘theme’. The enredo is theme of the entire parade, including its costumes, floats and indeed the title and lyrics of the samba de enredo song. Everything in the grand parade is designed to fit with the enredo.

Preparing an enredo for carnival

Each year a samba school will announce its enredo sometime around April, not long after the previous carnaval ("cah-na-VOW" - carnival). The enredo is chosen by the board of directors of the samba school.

>> Press release of Viradouro's enredo for '24.

From there, work will begin on all the wonderful constumes. visuals and floats in the year-long countdown for the desfile ("des-FEEL-ee" - parade) in carnival next February/March. The biggest Rio samba schools create and store these in dedicated warehouse spaces in the Cidade do Samba.

As for the song itself - the samba de enredo - the school will select it's chosen samba de enredo sometime around the September/October. It will be chosen with much anticipation through several heats and from many entries. This is known as the 'disputa' of the sambas. Nowadays, each samba de enredo typically credits a team of several songwriters or ‘compositores’, but some are penned by a single writer.

Instagram post from GRES Império da Tijuca which reads: Which samba finalist deserves to be the champion? This accompanied lyrics and audio clips of the short list of sambas from which the enredo will be chosen that year.
'Which samba finalist deserves to be the champion?' This Instagram post also included lyrics and audio clips of the short list of sambas from which that year'ssamba enredo will be chosen.

Once the samba has been chosen, the entire samba school rehearses in earnest. The mestre of the bateria and section directors finalise and teach the bateria arrangement for the song, which the bateria rehearse repeatedly. The school choose lead singers (puxadores - “push-a-DOOR-ees”) and choreographies for the certain dancing sections to bring the song and arrangement to life. Everyone in the samba school, including anyone temporarily joining the school to be able to join the parade, will rehearse the song and routine repeatedly in preparation for carnival.

>> Learn more: an overview of history and characteristics of samba enredo.
>> A chat about the selection of the enredo

Poster for the final of the battle of the sambas for Portela's 2024 carnival
Poster for the final of the battle of the sambas for Portela's 2024 carnival, with the theme 'Um Defeito de Cor' - 'A Colour Defect'

Typical subject matter of an enredo

>> Enredos of carnival 2024 Grupo Especial (highest group).
>> Enredos of the Série Ouro (second group). Also find other years there.
>> Wiki: champions through the years in Rio.

Common themes:

  • Afro-Brazilian culture/ancestry

  • Famous figures especially of political/racial resistance

  • Famous artists/musicians

  • Mythical or folkloric figures

  • The natural world

  • Sponsored theme

Use the following two sets of links of two Special Group 2023 enredos (or find your own) to bring all this information to life!

  • Imperatriz' winning enredo 2023 - Me Leva e Cia

    • synopsis - about the brazilian historical figure of Lampião at the gates of hell.

    • Lyrics of the samba here.

    • Video of the title-winning parade, centered on the bateria and puxadores/cordas.

  • Mangueira's enredo from the same year - ‘As Áfricas que Bahia canta’

Any samba enredo worth its salt will be very proud to proclaim the name, nickname or colours of its own samba school somewhere in the lyrics too, of course, regardless of the main subject matter.


Musical characteristics of a samba enredo

Like a pop song, a samba enredo generally follows a verse-chorus structure, where the choruses tend to be shorter, catchier and repeated and the verses are longer and less repeated. Unlike a pop song, it would typically have two different verses and two different choruses.

Generally, a samba enredo lasts somewhere around two minutes in performance, at which point it would be cycled top to bottom again and again.

When a samba school performs the enredo, the first cycle through (or sometimes 2 cycles) are normally sung without the bateria playing (except perhaps one surdo playing ‘pedal’ or ‘marcação’). Often this rendition is slower, too. This gives a chance for the participants and the audience to familiarise with the song and sing along before the energy is really lifted by the full arrangement.

While samba in general can include music of a very wide range of tempos, samba enredo is towards the top end of that range. It is carnival music after all, designed to get bums wiggling and everyone dancing. The tempo of samba enredo has increased from somewhere around 120bpm in the 1960s to 150bpm (!) in the 2010s. In recent years the trend has been a slight decrease to around 140-145. For context, in the Olá Samba bateria, we typically play around 125, but this can be 115-130 to suit who’s playing.

A sign of a good samba - enredo or otherwise - is that the whole crowd and all of the performers are singing their heart out together. This is a real singalong style, a style of song that is meant to be sung together! To help with this, the lead singers often sing a word or two of the upcoming line to remind people what to sing next. These prompts for memory quickly become part of the vocal line itself that everybody comes to expect.

It can’t be overstated how much these sambas mean to some of the members of the samba school community. There is such joy and positive energy in these performances. One of my enduring memories of carnival in Brazil is seeing people sing, shout and scream the words from the bottom of their lungs, while dancing, while looking into my eyes, with tears running down their face.

The Bateria  arrangement in a samba enredo

The bateria of a samba school compliments these changes between sections of the song. At a basic level, these arrangements respond to the signals 1, 2 or 3. Different samba schools have different defaults as to what these numbers mean for the arrangements but most samba schools would define part 1 as the chorus - the ‘refrão’ (heh-FRAU).

Most samba schools default to the most ‘full’ samba groove in the choruses where, for example, shakers play their full groove and tamborims play longer sections of carreteiro. The arrangement during the verses might then have shakers playing less or stopping altogether and tamborims playing more broken phrasing along with the lyrics.

But, of course, this doesn’t do justice to the fact that the arrangement- ‘desenho’ (des-EN-yo) - for each instrument can be very intricate throughout. While the parts for surdos and caixas are generally more repetitive with the function of holding down the groove, the tamborims, bells and shakers may not repeat more than a few beats in the whole desenho, so take a lot of learning to commit to memory.

>> Check out videos of ‘desenhos’  like this where you can see the signals from the directors.
>> Tamborim and chocalho desenho 2023 from the samba school Tuiuti. Tuiuti won the best chocalho section 2023 under the direction of Markinhos.

We’ll explore more detail about the parts for each instrument in another post… not to mention in rehearsals!

Breaks, Bossas and Paradinhas in Samba Enredo

The first break or ‘paradinha’ (para-DJEEN-ya) in a samba enredo can be credited to Mocidade in the mid 1950s. Before then the bateria would keep the groove going permanently to serve the song, with little in the way of specific arrangement. Indeed, in the very early days of samba enredo, one half of the song would be improvised by the singer.

Since then, the desenhos of each part in the bateria have become increasingly complex and, in addition, each bateria learns breaks (‘bossas’ or 'paradinhas') to fit a particular part of the samba. The mestre will decide on which cycles of the song to include that bossa or not. Either way, the song itself continues unchanged. In rehearsals, the bossas come up most times to give the bateria more chance to practise them, while in the actual desfile they would come up more sparingly. They might deliberately aim to perform one as the bateria passes the judges, for example.

>> If you want to really tune into this, read through the lyrics of a particular samba enredo while watching a video of its performance. Make a note each time a bossa or break comes in and when it doesn’t.

Sometimes, the mestre and directors might already have written some of these bossas years prior to being applied to a particular arrangement. Other times, it might be that they write a bossa specifically to suit the enredo - if it references a musical or regional style, for example. Either way, the bateria rehearses some bossas on top of the sambas de enredo to test them out in the period of time between the enredo being announced and the samba being chosen, Once the samba is chosen, the main parts, the desenhos, can be written to suit the song and the bossa placed inside this arrangement.


Samba enredo beyond the Rio Carnival

The home of this style of samba is the Rio Carnival as we have seen, but it is played by other similar samba schools around Brazil, especially São Paulo, and around the world e.g. London School of Samba.

Many other smaller groups copy this style of music. A smaller carnival group without all the structure and various elements that form a samba school would be called a ‘bloco’. Some of these blocos play samba enredo just like a samba school.

Any groups or schools around the world that ‘play samba enredo’ would play not only their specific enredo for that year (if they have one) but also older enredos from their own and other schools. The director might call out “Salgueiro 2019” or “Tijuca 2012”, for example. At which point they would run that whole enredo several times through, with any/all of the percussion arrangements that go with it.

By contrast, we in Olá Samba play the percussion of the samba schools but without performing the song. In this way we do not really play samba enredo. Our ‘samba’ piece is more akin to the ‘esquenta’ (warmup) of a samba school’s bateria when they’re not serving the song. Our arrangements in our samba piece are lifted/adapted from various places, including enredos and esquentas from the Rio Carnival, or written by me, and strung together in an order that suits our performance.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of how we (or your own group) relate to the style of samba enredo from Rio.


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